Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics



Primary Voters Must Consider Public Health in the Voting Booth

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Vaccination (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

For the first time in more than a year, New Yorkers are starting to see a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. The city is finally leaping toward the promised “new normal” as basketball fans flood arenas and restaurant patrons spill into the streets with fewer worries about masking up and keeping distance. When our next mayor and City Council take office in January, we’re optimistic that the covid pandemic will be truly behind us.

But for many New Yorkers, the health disparities that COVID-19 created and exacerbated will be here to stay. The pandemic laid bare the brutal reality that results from an under-resourced and insufficient public health infrastructure.

It is in this environment that New Yorkers are now tasked with making critical decisions about who should lead our city. This is an enormous responsibility and an incredible opportunity to chart a more equitable course. More than ever, voters and candidates alike must consider health equity as the top issue in the upcoming New York City elections. 

For the past 14 months, COVID-19 has justifiably dominated the public health conversation. Everyone has struggled, but for many, the pandemic has only magnified the health disparities that have existed for decades. Before COVID-19, nearly 13% of New Yorkers – a whopping 1.2 million people – experienced food insecurity. Now that number is more than 1.5 million, a 38% increase over just the past year. One in three children in New York don’t have access to enough food. A recent Public Health Solutions survey of New York City residents revealed that 42% of respondents with a COVID-19 diagnosis in their household said they or someone in their household had been laid off in the last year, compared to 24% of those without a COVID-19 case.

Other major public health crises have been ravaging the city since long before anyone had heard of COVID-19. In New York, Black mothers are 12 times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than their white neighbors. Despite the Affordable Care Act, 12% of New Yorkers continue to lack any sort of health insurance, a number that has likely increased due to covid-related job loss. Moreover, Black and Latino New Yorkers are far more likely to suffer from asthma as a result of long-standing environmental racism, a likely contributor to higher covid-related death rates among those groups

These issues have long lurked under the surface and at the margins of society, affecting our most vulnerable friends and neighbors. Though many of us eagerly anticipate a return to some semblance of normalcy, we must recognize that for millions of New Yorkers, that “normal” was not nearly enough to begin with. That “normal” is the reason New York’s most marginalized communities suffered the most from COVID-19. As a city, we must do better when it comes to combating these long-neglected public health emergencies, and we should choose our leaders with this mission in mind.

As we emerge post-pandemic, New Yorkers have the opportunity to make our voices heard and to elect leaders that are committed to eradicating every health disparity that our city faces. From the mayor to comptroller to borough presidents to members of the City Council, we have the chance to vote for politicians that are committed to making health equity a key part of the plan to keep New York moving forward.  

The ability to live a long and healthy life depends on whether a person lives in a safe neighborhood; experiences racism or discrimination; enjoys access to medical care, food, and stable housing; or has adequate income, knowledge, and opportunities to make healthy choices. Without systemic changes to our approach to health, and without new infrastructure that addresses the root causes of poor health and puts New Yorkers at the center of the health delivery system, we will be in the same situation and experience the same results again and again.

The major Democratic mayoral candidates have all espoused policies that focus on the need for a healthy city, with plans that range from supporting health clinics in underserved communities to dealing with the maternal health crisis. This is a good start, and it shows that the candidates realize addressing community health must be at the forefront of helping alter the path for millions of New Yorkers. I encourage you to read about their plans.

When you step into the voting booth and consider your options, think about what issues matter most to you. Is it racial justice? Educational reform? A fairer economy? Whatever it may be, it will be unachievable without first addressing the glaring health inequities of our city. Racial justice is impossible when Black and brown New Yorkers are dying from preventable causes at rates far exceeding their white neighbors. Education reform is out of reach so long as one-third of New York’s kids don’t have enough to eat. How can we have an economy that works for everyone when a single medical bill can ruin families? 

When we cast our votes this week and next, it isn’t just a policy decision. It’s a moral one. We have the choice to radically redefine what a healthy city looks like, or the choice to condemn millions of our friends and neighbors to poor health just because of the circumstances of their birth and environment. For decades, health has been an afterthought at the ballot box, but COVID-19 has proven that the status quo simply won’t work any longer. On June 22, let’s finally get this right.  

Lisa David is the President and CEO of Public Health Solutions.

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Racist Rezonings Made Housing the #1 Issue in Central Brooklyn

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Michael Hollingsworth, the author (photo: Hollingsworth campaign)

I live in Crown Heights, and to be specific, on Crown Street. For over 60 years, my building has been home to generations of working-class Black folks just like me. It used to be a rent-stabilized building, but in 2016 my landlord started converting vacant apartments into luxury condos. Some of them sold for over $1 million. Today, he continues to gut renovate empty units while refusing to make repairs to the apartments of existing tenants. 

All throughout my neighborhood, I see traces of the Black and brown people who used to call this area home and the businesses that once employed them. On my block alone, what used to be Sea Crest Linen laundromat is now an empty lot targeted for luxury development, and where there was once a warehouse that employed locals, there is now a 12-story condo. 

So why has Crown Heights changed so much over the last decade? Some of our elected officials like to cast all of the blame on young white transplants moving into our neighborhood, but gentrification doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s the result of decisions made by politicians who put their donors’ interests ahead of our community’s needs and sell us out to private developers. Many of our local elected representatives have spent years passing anti-Black, anti-brown, anti-poor, and anti-working-class housing policy. They’ve gutted tenant protections and neglected the agencies meant to protect us from rising rents and displacement in favor of campaign donations from real estate interests. 

That’s not to say we haven’t fought back. My neighbors and I were there in 2017 when District 35’s current City Council member, Laurie Cumbo, approved the sale of our public land, the Bedford Union Armory, for redevelopment. We demanded, alongside Laborers Local 79—a union of construction and general building workers—that the Armory become a community land trust under a new public housing model built with union labor. And we were told that the project would transform the historic site into a recreation center.

But instead, Cumbo and former State Assembly Member Walter Mosley saw it as a money-making opportunity. They created the luxury rental market in Southern Crown Heights where one didn’t exist, and offered so-called affordable units, which were never meant to be accessible to tenants in the area. We were lied to, told that the market-rate units would “subsidize” the recreation center, but in reality, it didn’t need to be subsidized—Cumbo’s developer donors just wanted to make a profit. Compounding past and future harm to the community, construction today at the Bedford Union Armory site is unsafe, underpaid, and non-union.

My neighbors and I were there again in 2018 when Cumbo and her senior staff set their sights on the Franklin Avenue Corridor south of Eastern Parkway, from President to Montgomery Street. Cumbo had plans to rezone the area, bringing in luxury development that would further the cycle of displacement. Opposition from the community was clear, as was the unanimous “no” vote from the community board. But Cumbo and her deep-pocketed real estate allies didn't want to hear what her constituents actually wanted. So this time, we fought back even harder. 

Alongside two of my neighbors, I filed a lawsuit against Cumbo, various city agencies, and the developers Cornell Realty Management and Carmel Partners. We represented ourselves in court, while the opposition hired more than 20 attorneys to try and stop the will of the people. In the end, the New York State Supreme Court annulled the 2018 Franklin Avenue rezoning. It was a crucial victory for the long-term Black residents who this development would have displaced. 

And where are we now? We’re at a crossroads. So much is at stake in the City Council election happening this month -- with early and absentee voting and primary day, June 22 -- and that’s part of why I decided to run to represent District 35, so my neighbors have the choice to vote for someone who has always stood on the side of our community.

One block away from me, the proposed development at 960 Franklin Avenue is the latest threat to our neighborhood. I remember when it was the Spice Factory, which employed lots of Black and brown folks. Now developers want to rezone to build the largest residential development in Crown Heights history: two massive luxury towers that would loom over the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Jackie Robinson Playground—casting shadows that would harm our treasured green spaces and transform our neighborhood into a playground for the real estate industry that’s wholly unaffordable to long-term residents. 

Once again, we’re suing the city and the luxury developers whose interests are prioritized over ours. We’ve secured a temporary restraining order to halt construction for now, but the fight isn’t over. It’s a signal of just how broken the system is when we have to sue our own elected local representatives in court to have our voices heard.

Housing injustice is the most important issue facing Central Brooklyn. We need and deserve safe, resilient, deeply and permanently affordable housing for all. To get us out of this crisis, we have to keep fighting alongside our neighbors, building tenant power, and strengthening protections for tenants and homeowners—which I’ve done both locally and statewide as an organizer with the Crown Heights Tenant Union. We also need allies in the City Council who will use their power to strengthen and expand social housing, and have a proven history of standing up to the real estate industry and predatory landlords. Together we can ensure a just future for our city dictated by tenants, working-class homeowners, and workers, not luxury developers.

Michael Hollingsworth is tenant organizer, lifelong Brooklynite, and Democratic candidate for City Council in District 35. On Twitter @mike4brooklyn.

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Why I Chose Kindness as a Candidate — And How Ranked-Choice Voting Made It Possible

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Chris Sosa, right, is the author (photo: @ChrisSosa)

The 2021 citywide primary is the first test of ranked-choice voting (RCV), a system I’ve long supported. I fought to ensure RCV wasn’t delayed for this year’s election. Under RCV, negative campaigning has been de-emphasized as candidates compete to become the second or third choice of their opponents’ voters. RCV increases the amount of democracy in our elections and prevents extreme or widely-disliked candidates from being elected with a small plurality in a crowded primary. It encourages candidates to talk to every voter.

Early on in this race, I decided that as a candidate my approach would be different from the style in which I was trained to speak as a long-time political commentator. I had the space to make this change under the RCV system without compromising my competitiveness. The Trump era made our national discourse markedly crueler and angrier, the inevitable end of a social media dystopia. I don’t want to be a force for tearing my community apart further. I decided I’d consciously adjust my conduct to help promote healing of our divisions. I speak from experience as a staffer in the New York State Legislature when I say diplomacy and trust are essential to passing legislation. 

I was humbled when my opponents recently singled out my campaign for its kindness when a PoliticsNY debate moderator asked us if we could say something positive about our opponents. It was easy to offer positive words about every person on my screen, because I’ve had the honor of learning more about each of them away from the cameras.

I knew when I entered the race that I was up against a series of machines. This is not an insult to the candidates who benefit, just a fact of New York politics. To put it bluntly, my campaign was a total longshot. From the earliest days, I was up against some well-liked, hardworking candidates who were going to have club and local elected support locked down. But I genuinely believe there’s room for an outsider voice like mine with policy solutions that aren’t always synonymous with the views of the Democratic Party at-large.

I have the right experience as a New York State Senate aide in the Democratic caucus who helped get legislation like the New York State DREAM Act across the finish line. I’m a professional speechwriter who knows the importance of strong messaging. I’m a longtime journalist who not only understands policy but political realities. Most importantly, I’m authentic. I garnered a reputation in the Senate halls for being an unusually transparent aide who could be trusted, because I always spoke my mind. I didn’t only treat my friends with honesty, but also my opponents.

So I decided to do something unusual, perhaps unprecedented, as a Council candidate. I actively befriended every opponent willing to engage with me in good faith. We’ve built genuine relationships over the course of this campaign. Coffees, phone calls, and fostering camaraderie between our teams. I see no value in villainizing people whose work I respect or creating tension between teams largely staffed by hard-working young people trying to do some good in the world. I’ve learned from my opponents. I hope they’ve learned from me. And I expect us to continue working together long after this race concludes. 

I reject my opponent and former de Blasio-appointed Census Director Julie Menin’s campaign claim that no one else is experienced enough to bring us back from the pandemic crisis. I respect Julie’s hard work and have enjoyed my own conversations with her to a degree that would probably surprise both of our supporters. But I hope ranked-choice voting will make zero-sum arguments like these less prevalent in future elections. Voters deserve to know that each of us brings a style, vision, and proven skill-set worthy of consideration by our voters. 

None of us will win on the first ballot round. This is just the truth of electoral math. Voters have too many qualified choices for any of us to pass 50% outright. In a new dynamic for New York politics, we need each other to win. This is a microcosm of the actual coalition building skills required to be a successful legislator.

The District 5 City Council race is setting a positive example to the entire city of how ranked-choice voting can change and heal our politics. No matter the outcome, New York wins.

Chris Sosa is a Democratic candidate for City Council in Manhattan’s 5th District. On Twitter @ChrisSosa.

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Why We Want Lucy Lang as Our Colleague as Manhattan DA

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Lucy Lang, right (photo: Lucy Lang campaign)

Leading a district attorney’s office is a unique privilege. Each day, we are called on to be ministers of justice, keep our communities safe, and ensure that a system, warped over time by decades of tough-on-crime policy, is reformed to serve the people it purports to protect. However, these challenges can be hard to tackle, and often require solutions that are collaborative within the office, span multiple agencies, and require support from the community.

We are district attorneys from around the country. We have worked with Lucy Lang. We understand her experience and record. And we know she is the right person for the job of Manhattan District Attorney.

As prosecutors who have served our communities and transformed offices stuck in the past, we know what it takes to fulfill the role of district attorney. Our offices are part of a deeply entrenched criminal justice system that, day in and day out, works with other communities, agencies, bureaucracies, and career public servants who view the DA as a tourist in the offices. Moreover, each jurisdiction is hyperlocal, with idiosyncrasies and different court procedures. Serving as an elected prosecutor requires much more than generic management experience and familiarity with the legal system; it requires a transformative vision, deep experience in a particular jurisdiction, and a knack for leading others while building strong coalitions.

Lucy has done all this and more. She has spent over a decade in Manhattan’s courts handling the most complex and violent cases, and she was one of the few prosecutors promoted to the on-call system for responding to homicide scenes. She understands the ins and outs of the local legal system, and she has used this knowledge to accomplish meaningful reforms -- long before the progressive prosecutor movement was popular.

As a former assistant district attorney, Lucy helped build the first Alternatives to Incarceration Unit in Manhattan at a time when few precedents existed and pushed to ensure the office treated kids like kids. She also pioneered a first-of-its-kind college-in-prison course that brought prosecutors into New York state prisons to study criminal justice reform alongside incarcerated students. These are only a few examples of the numerous reforms Lucy has directly implemented that demonstrate her strength in building coalitions and cultivating wide buy-in for her vision. Indeed, at a time when many district attorneys were still taking baby steps toward reform, Lucy was able to successfully launch these initiatives in one of the largest offices in the nation. Without leadership and experience, vision and expertise do not have much value. Fortunately, Lucy has all of the above.

After leaving the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, Lucy took these skills to the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution (IIP), where we had the opportunity to work with her. While at the IIP, Lucy was a source of leadership and policy expertise for the entire field. For example, following the murder of George Floyd, prosecutors throughout the country called on the IIP for guidance on how to lead their offices at a time when many of their staff members were struggling with their complicity in an often brutal legal system. Lucy counseled these district attorneys on how to effectively address their teams, facilitate restorative circles, respond to the needs of their communities, and ultimately use this painful moment in history as an opportunity for reform. Lucy also trained offices on racial justice-centered procedural justice, pioneered a first-of-its-kind trauma-informed prosecution training, led the foremost initiative on racial justice in prosecution, currently in use in offices around the country, and shepherded a collective effort to articulate a cogent and powerful vision for what prosecution centered around community can be.

Lucy has been a leader in this field. She has worked with elected district attorneys to understand how they run their offices, and has received the most comprehensive training any candidate could ask for. But what truly sets Lucy apart is her compassion, and her deep understanding that prosecutors are elected to help people who touch the system, not punish them. The role of Manhattan District Attorney is too important to elect someone without the vision or capacity to effectuate the change the system needs. Manhattan needs Lucy Lang.

Sherry Boston is District Attorney of Dekalb County, Georgia. Kim Gardner is Circuit Attorney of St. Louis, Missouri. Scott Colom is District Attorney for the 16th Circuit Court District, Mississippi.

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Federal Infrastructure Plan Must Include a Path to Citizenship for Immigrants

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Becoming citizens (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

In his first several months in office, President Biden has taken significant steps to reverse the harm imposed by President Trump’s cruelty that devastated immigrant communities, including working to reunite families separated at the border, reversing the Muslim ban, announcing the closure of ICE detention facilities, and reinstating Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haiti. Yet, when it comes to the most urgent demand of immigrant communities — creating a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants — the Biden administration and Congress have thus far fallen short of making any real legislative advances. 

As the administration moves forward to pass an infrastructure package, it’s time that Biden, Senate Majority Leader Schumer, and congressional allies include a pathway to citizenship for immigrant youth, TPS holders, essential workers, and as many of our loved ones and neighbors as possible as part of that legislation. 

Since last fall, our communities looked forward to leadership that would allow us to turn the page on one of our darkest eras. Under the Trump administration, immigrants suffered from inhumane policies and feared being ripped apart from their communities. We remained strong, however, and tenacious organizing helped us win critical defensive victories and led us to the current moment, where Trump holds no governmental authority and bold legislative action to deliver justice and relief to all our people is again possible.

It’s time to take advantage of this moment. During the pandemic, tireless efforts of our frontline workers, many whom are undocumented, kept this country afloat. Immigrant essential workers put their lives on the line to keep our communities safe and sustain our economy. From teachers and nurses to delivery workers and factory workers, immigrants are integral parts of communities who have helped save lives and worked to get key jobs done before, during, and after the worst of the covid crisis. And all while bearing the possibility of being separated from their loved ones due to their lack of immigration status. Before and during the pandemic crisis, over 5 million undocumented workers continued to be essential and yet deportable. 

For our country to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and begin to heal from the injustices brought on by our outdated immigration system, Congress must provide a long overdue pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants — that means not just immigrant youth and TPS holders (who absolutely need a path to citizenship), but also these essential workers. Immigrants have waited decades to become fully recognized by this country, paying over $79 billion in federal taxes every year, starting businesses, and building their lives in the country they have come to call their home. With broad support from across the country for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth, TPS holders, and essential workers, and with President Biden’s stated committment to providing them with that pathway, there should be no further delay. 

In March, the House of Representatives voted to pass the Dream and Promise Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS). But the House passing bills with no Senate action will not deliver real relief to anyone. The best way for the Biden administration, Senator Schumer, and Congressional allies to deliver long-awaited permanent protections is to use the reconciliation process.

By including a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants — including DACA recipients, TPS holders, essential workers, and more — in the infrastructure plan, Democrats can pass legislation with a simple majority. Given the razor-thin Senate margin and Senate Republicans’ stated goal of obstructing the Biden agenda at every turn, this is the only viable option that remains as long as the filibuster is in place.

Simply put, Democrats should use every legislative tool at their disposal to advance legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants. This is the window of opportunity for our communities and all of our allies, and we must take full advantage. Now, it is time for Congress to fulfill promises and finally deliver a recovery plan for our country that includes permanent protections for immigrants and their families. Our people cannot wait any longer. 

Yaritza Mendez is the co-director of organizing at Make the Road New York. Murad Awawdeh is the Executive Director of the New York Immigration Coalition. Ana Maria Archila is the Co-Executive Director of the Center for Popular Democracy. On Twitter: @YariMendez05 of @MaketheRoadNY; @HeyItsMurad of @TheNYIC; & @AnaMariaArchil2 of @popdemoc.

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For CUNY Students to Thrive, Mental Health Services Must Be Expanded

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The CUNY Chancellor and students (photo: @CUNY)

Graduating when the pandemic first hit New York City was hard for many students. To say that having access to a counselor during a time of increasing uncertainty and hopelessness was beneficial is an understatement - it was many students' lifeline. However, for countless students and peers, they are not so fortunate.

The effect of the last year on CUNY students can not be overstated. In a recent study that took place during the COVID-19 crisis, 40% of students said they felt depressed, anxious or “on edge,” roughly a 100% spike. Going through college while living through a pandemic is hard enough - now, more than ever, students deserve accessible and affordable mental health counseling, especially as we work to heal from the trauma caused by the covid crisis.

We can’t afford to wait any longer to remedy this glaring problem for our CUNY and SUNY students. A lack of these services has a negative effect on student’s academics, as mental health problems, especially depression and anxiety, are a leading health cause of college failure and dropout at CUNY. In fact, according to a survey conducted by CUNY, 55% of students with depression, 52% of those with anxiety disorders, and 58% of those with moderate or severe psychological distress report that their mental health symptoms interfere with their school work somewhat, moderately, or a lot. These staggering numbers demonstrate how crucial it is that these students have reliable access to support networks for the benefit of their health and their studies.  

We must take action now to expand the mental health services that these students require to ensure that our schools are safe spaces for young people to get the support they need. That’s why, as part of the CUNY New Deal, Senator Gounardes introduced a bill to ensure that CUNY campuses are required to staff an adequate number of licensed, mental health professionals in order to meet the specific needs of their unique student populations.

With this bill, each CUNY campus will be required to establish a board of experts and advisors within two years to study and make updates to the clinician-to-student ratio. Additionally, recommendations will be made every five years to update the ratio, which won’t be allowed to fall below a minimum of a 1-to-1,000 clinician-to-student ratio. This bill reflects our commitment to the services that bolster student’s well-being, and provides a foundation for our teachers and the school community to value their experiences, as well as their dreams for the future. Finally, we are one step closer to giving students the support services they deserve.

But the timing here is crucial. As this year’s legislative session draws to a close, this bill must get passed if we are to expedite the support and care our students need for their mental health and academic success.

In fact, in the state budget passed in April, CUNY and SUNY received a budget allocation of over $1 billion in new capital funding. If we’re unable to pass this bill with the remaining time left in the session, it’s imperative that these institutions take affirmative steps to address this pervasive problem on their campuses. We can’t afford inaction on this issue, no matter what the avenue for recourse is.

There needs to be an understanding that college success is not dependent solely on academic outcome, but on addressing students holistically, ensuring necessary supports are widely accessible and high-quality so students can be successful. Students are not cogs in a machine - they have basic needs. College can be the most social time of your life, but it can also be very stressful and challenging in many ways, even without a pandemic.

And when you’re isolated during a pandemic and learning solely remotely, it’s very, very difficult to navigate a time of pressure and stress, and a myriad of mental health consequences can ensue. 

The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health needs of students, with many reporting anxiety, depression, and an increased need for mental health services. Even if it feels like we’re starting to move back into a normal phase, many are still suffering and learning to deal with the trauma of the last year. Every day can be a struggle for students facing stress, anxiety, and depression, which is only made worse when it goes untreated or unrecognized. For the safety and well-being of our students, it’s imperative that the state legislature take action to pass this bill so that we can alleviate the anguish these students face.

We know that increasing mental health counselors and making them more accessible will help ease those struggles by ensuring adequate resources for those taking on the normal stress of college life compounded by the pandemic. Many students have made it through the beginning stages of a pandemic and graduated because they were able to get the help and support they needed, yet there are so many others who were not, and that is unacceptable.

Mental health issues can have dire impacts for college student’s academic successes, and in more serious cases can lead to physical harm from suicide and depression. For many of these students, mental health services on campus are the only affordable and available option. The passage of this bill would be a lifeline for students with limited options who are at significant risk.

Students enrolled on CUNY campuses pay a fee for mental health services, but the reported staffing ratios are in excess of one mental health clinician to over 2,000 students. For reference, the national average across college campuses is 1-to-1,250. Research also shows that low-income students are more likely to suffer from mental health illnesses, and CUNY campuses have a higher share of low-income, urban students than at other colleges and universities. 

To add stressors to this crisis, over the last year, approximately one in four adults have been food insecure citywide, and one in five renters are behind on their housing payments. For many during the final semester of college, all of these mental health issues were heightened because of unemployment due to massive layoffs and hiring freezes, housing and food insecurity, and to add on, the rise in anti-Asian sentiments and violence. These added burdens place an even higher strain on students who may not be able to focus on receiving their degree due to these worries they face in their personal lives. For these reasons and more, we have a collective responsibility to support the mental well-being of all students by passing this bill and getting more counselors on campus. 

Trauma is more than just a mental health issue - it’s an education issue. That’s why referring students with trauma to a school counselor or other mental health resources is a vitally important practice. When students are supported, their work is exponentially better. They can thrive. By strengthening counseling services, we’re letting students know it’s okay to ask for help, to reach out to someone who they can talk to and to make sure they know that they don’t have to go at it alone. 

We’ve heard from students that, previously, nine CUNY campuses had waitlists for mental health services, one of which was nine months long, and 12 campuses had a limit on visits, with some visitations being capped at as few as just six. It should never take such an extended time of a personal, life-threatening crisis to finally get a counselor to connect with. That shouldn’t be the case for anyone reaching out for mental health support.

College students are already an increasingly vulnerable population when it comes to mental health, and they now face even greater risk due to this unprecedented year of grief and quarantine. As we reflect on the isolation, anxiety and trauma of the last year, it’s clear that we must make the investment of support, commitment, and care for our students right now, so that we can build the foundation for a hopeful future. I urge our legislators to pass this bill, because academics can wait, but mental health cannot.

Andrew Gounardes is a State Senator representing parts of southern Brooklyn. Lisa Nishimura is a Policy Fellow with Young Invincibles and a recent graduate of John Jay College, a senior college of CUNY. Juvanie Piquant is the CUNY Student Trustee/USS Chair. On Twitter @Sen_Gounardes & @juvaniepiquant.

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Taxi Medallion Owners and Their Families are Still Suffering

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The mayor at an announcement (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

In February, my family and I discovered a “For Sale” sign on our house. For the last few months, we have been fighting for our home in the middle of a pandemic. For 90 days since then we’ve been living with the fear that our home would be sold and we’d have no place to go.  

This has been a deeply traumatic experience for my family brought on by the taxi medallion crisis, predatory lenders, and the city’s failure to act. As the daughter of a taxi driver and a school bus matron, I’ve always known a life of living paycheck to paycheck, one of great instability. Working-class people live in crisis every day, and our city has a moral imperative to aid our communities with bold policy to ensure we can all live a dignified life. 

The city’s taxi medallion system limited the number of medallions issued, which created an artificial market — and then that market was exploited to raise revenue. During the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations, the city made more than $855 million from taxi medallions and collecting taxes on private medallion sales. Meanwhile, they opened the floodgates to Uber and Lyft, which eroded the medallions’ supposed monopoly rights to conduct street hails and led to the bursting of the medallion bubble. For years, taxi drivers in our city have struggled to maintain a living and some can never retire because of our city’s neglect to effectively address the medallion crisis. 

In November 2019, my father filed for bankruptcy because he could no longer manage to pay the bloated taxi medallion loan, surcharges, insurance, gas, and repairs on what he was earning as a taxi driver, let alone also maintain other necessary bills. In the spring of 2020, his medallion was seized by Aspire Bank. On February 5 of this year, the United States Bankruptcy Court put the “For Sale” sign on our house — without any advanced notice — and verbally warned us that we had 90 days to reach a settlement with trustees or it will be sold. The trustees of the Bankruptcy Court, one of the only courts open and operating during the pandemic, told us that we need to come up with $250,000 within 90 days. 

We knew that our lawyer was not working in the best interest of our family, and we were unsure who we could trust in a time of urgency and desperation. A legal assistance group, and a representative from the mayor's office called me, but after hearing the details of our bankruptcy case, they never called back. We knew time was moving quickly and eventually we paid to retain another lawyer that we found on our own. 

During the settlement process, I learned that Bankruptcy Court allows Trustees to use fearmongering and threatening tactics to push lawyers and borrowers to move with urgency without any acknowledgement of the time it takes for families to weigh their options of losing their home or acquiring more debt.

In our case, the trustee became the owner of our home. When selling assets, the trustee gets about 6% or more from the settlement. In the middle of our settlement process, Aspire Bank, the lender who seized our taxi medallion, sold it to another lender instead of renegotiating the sale of the medallion back to us. Because the lender sold the medallion, we had to negotiate a settlement with the trustee who was willing to settle for $150,000. 

Although this was not a settlement we could really afford, we knew it would be the last offer before they decided to sell our home. While we are relieved that the bankruptcy court process is over, we are in deep debt. 

My family’s story demonstrates the dangers of our city’s neglect. This would not have happened if the mayor had fully adopted the New York Taxi Workers Alliance plan for debt relief, which would restructure medallion loans. Their proposal is supported by Comptroller Stringer, Attorney General James, and Senator Schumer, among others. But, the mayor’s plan is nowhere near what NYTWA is fighting for, it’s not debt forgiveness — it's a bailout for lenders. While the average medallion owner’s debt is $500,000, with industry business down 90%, the mayor’s plan is to have drivers take out $20,000 loans from the city as a payment to lenders. 

The city is not just failing taxi drivers. New York state legislators are also negotiating the value of Uber and Lyft drivers as they are currently working on a bill that still allows drivers to be considered independent contractors, and leaked language in the draft bill indicated an attempt to limit actions like "any picketing, strikes, slow downs, or boycotts." Some legislators are still negotiating the value of human lives and dignity against profit margins.

Our fight is not over. We will not stop fighting until the immigrant and working-class communities who kept this city moving during a pandemic are prioritized in policy and aid over banks and corporations and their profits. 

I want to thank every single person who has sent love, food, hope and donations to my family. We are so overwhelmed with gratitude for your outpouring during this difficult time. We are not the only family affected by the taxi medallion crisis; too many people have died by or lost a loved one to suicide, lost part or all of their income, their homes and their stability. Like so many others my dad will never be able to retire — out of 6,000 medallion owners, 1,200 are over the age of 62. This is why we chose to share our story and stand in continued solidarity with taxi drivers and their families across our city and beyond. 

We need New Yorkers to join us in demanding more. We need the New York City Council to push the mayor to do more. We need the mayor to listen to taxi drivers and adopt the NYTWA plan. 

In June, we have the chance to elect a City Council and a Mayor who will prioritize people over profits and treat our essential workers as essential New Yorkers. Get out there and vote for the people who lead with courage. 

Felicia Singh is a teacher and Democratic candidate running for New York City Council in District 32 in Queens. On Twitter @FSingh_NYC.

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New York City is Heading in the Right Direction on Saving Small Businesses

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A small business visit (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

After a devastating year for small businesses, we are heartened to see commitment from Mayor de Blasio and the City Council to dedicate $155 million to small business recovery and job training. In the last year, we’ve lost many businesses and community spaces due to the pandemic and the lack of timely and sufficient action at all levels of government. Now, thanks to the advocacy of small businesses and commercial tenants from across the city, the mayor’s executive budget plan shows some real hope for the businesses that have been able to make it this far.

One exciting part of this investment in economic recovery is expanded funding for the Commercial Lease Assistance Program (CLA). Launched by the Department of Small Business Services in 2018 after sustained advocacy from our coalition, USBnyc, the CLA Program provides free legal representation in connection with commercial leases to underserved small business owners who otherwise cannot afford counsel. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CLA Program has seen a 10-fold surge in requests for help from commercial tenants who urgently needed advice and representation in approaching lease negotiations with landlords or formalizing unwritten agreements. 

In March 2021, United for Small Business (USBnyc) coalition members testified before the City Council small business committee at the preliminary budget hearing. Together, we called for CLA funding to be expanded and baselined. Now that the mayor has announced a proposed expansion in CLA funding, we look forward to working with both the administration and the City Council to ensure this critical program is funded in the final fiscal year 2022 budget, due by July 1, at the proposed level of $5 million and that the program is retained continuously with current providers so that services are not again interrupted.

In future years, we would also want to see that funding baselined and the program scope expanded to serve nonprofit commercial tenants, as well as including litigation in harassment and other cases.

On top of expanded legal assistance, the $100 million small business grant program represents a huge opportunity to help small businesses get through the next few months. Many of the businesses we work with owe tens of thousands of dollars in back rent, if not more, from periods of state-mandated restrictions on activity and capacity. They need financial support to ensure that back rent doesn’t foreclose the possibility of recovery. It is critically important to make sure that these grants are rolled out in a way that is accessible to immigrants and people of color, who have struggled to access assistance throughout the pandemic. Information about the programs should be widely distributed, in multiple languages, to businesses and community-based organizations before applications become available, and a wide range of documentation should be acceptable. This is an opportunity to prioritize New York’s smallest businesses and those who have not been able to access other forms of support.

In the first official debate among leading Democratic mayoral candidates, almost all of them highlighted small business support as a critical piece of the city's recovery from COVID-19, and some acknowledged the importance of rent as a barrier to recovery, along with discriminatory enforcement.

Small business recovery should be part of the discussion for the upcoming debate as well. We hope the next mayoral administration will take bold and comprehensive action to ensure that local economic development is supported.

And in the last year of the current administration, we hope the Council and mayor will take steps to address these long-term challenges of commercial rent and vacancy. This proposed budget represents a step in the right direction, and we are proud to have helped get the city to this point.

Abigail Ellman is Director of Planning and Development at the Cooper Square Committee; Olympia Kazi is founding member of the New York City Artist Coalition; and both are members of the United for Small Business NYC Coalition. On Twitter @usb_nyc.

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Letter to the Editor: Keeping 911 in the City’s Mental Health Emergency Response

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Emergency (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

To the editor:

Last week, I joined the final day of training for the new teams who will soon begin responding to 911 mental health calls in East Harlem and Harlem. Through this pilot program - the Behavioral Emergency Response Assistance Division or B-HEARD - mental health professionals will be part of 911 response for the first time in New York City history. It's part of our commitment as a city to treat mental health crises as issues of public health, not public safety. 

As we planned our pilot, we consulted with many practitioners and advocates around the city and country, including Correct Crisis Intervention Today in NYC (CCIT-NYC). We looked at health-centered responses in places like Denver, San Francisco, Harris County, and Toronto, as well as the long-running CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, to develop our model: small teams of emergency medical technicians/paramedics and behavioral health clinicians responding to nonviolent mental health calls that come through the 911 system.

CCIT-NYC has argued against using 911 -- as written in the recent op-ed published by Gotham Gazette: De Blasio is on right track, but mental health response teams need crucial changes to really work -- for the program. But every jurisdiction in the country dispatches their emergency response, including health-centered responses like CAHOOTs, through 911 for good reason.

Importantly, New Yorkers have options outside of 911 for urgent, in-person mental health support. NYC Well can dispatch mobile crisis teams to people's homes within hours. But if New Yorkers need help within minutes, they know to call 911. When they do, B-HEARD will ensure they get the most appropriate response for their needs. Our model builds on other strengths in New York City: FDNY EMS has decades of experience responding to more than 100,000 mental health emergencies each year, and Health + Hospitals has long been the City's behavioral health safety net, overseeing many significant crisis response and emergency psychiatric operations. 

The B-HEARD team members themselves also bring impressive experience to this work. In addition to extensive crisis response and de-escalation experience, many team members have lived experience with mental illness and substance use disorders. This was intentional. By layering lived experience on top of tested crisis management skills and rigorous training protocols, we know the teams will be ready on day one.

And they are. The energy on the last day of training was palpable. The new teams are working together seamlessly, equipped with new skills and existing strengths. They are eager to be on the forefront of long-needed change. Everyone involved is looking to learn as much as possible from the pilot program, and use what we learn to inform our approach citywide. As we do, we will continue to learn from advocates, practitioners, community members with lived experience, and other cities embarking on this work.

Susan Herman
Director, Mayor's Office of Community Mental Health

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Latinos and the 2021 City Council Elections in Queens

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Council Member Francisco Moya (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

The Latino population in Queens has exploded over the last two decades, and it is prompting a coming of age in Latino political representation in the borough. If current trends continue, Queens may become another center of Latino political power in the City of New York, alongside the Bronx.

The rise of Latino political representation in Queens began in 2000 when Hiram Monserrate became the first Latino elected to a position in the borough, beating an incumbent for a Democratic district leader position. One year later, he became the first Latino from Queens to be elected to the City Council. While acknowledging his eventual conviction, one cannot ignore Monserrate, for in many ways he paved the way for other Latinos to win and hold local office.

Many of them, including former City Council Member Julissa Ferreras and current State Senator Jessica Ramos, were once members of his staff. Others, like the late Jose Peralta, were not only allies of Monserrate but Monserrate lent them his once effective organization for their electoral pursuits and eventual victories. To be clear, both Ferreras and Ramos disavowed Monserrate after his conviction. Peralta ran against Monserrate after his scandals and beat him in a special election for the State Senate seat that had once belonged to him.

As Latinos have increased in number in the overall and voting populations, the number of Latino elected officials has likewise increased. In addition to the names already mentioned, Francisco Moya (who is up for re-election and is facing a formidable challenge from Ingrid Gomez), Catalina Cruz, Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, and of course Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have all won legislative seats representing Queens. Other Latinos have won positions as Democratic district leaders in the borough.

The ramifications of this growth among Latinos will again be felt in this year’s elections — all of city government is on the ballot in this month’s primaries and the fall general election, with many competitive City Council races in Queens and across the five boroughs, as well as the races for mayor, comptroller, public advocate, and borough presidencies.

It is quite possible that the number of Latino elected officials in Queens will increase by as much as five (though I anticipate a gain of three), as the demographic changes in some City Council districts have tilted heavily from majority white to majority Latino.

In the 22nd Council District, based in Astoria, Tiffany Caban is a favorite for the seat left vacant by Council Member Costa Constantinides, who was term-limited but resigned recently due to family reasons and another job opportunity. Interestingly, this district is not majority Latino, though Latinos make up a quarter of the Democratic electorate, according to L2 voter data. Caban’s strength lies in the fact that she comes to the race off an incredible run for district attorney, where she barely lost to Melinda Katz in a recount, and thus has considerable name recognition and other advantages. Furthermore, Caban is a darling of the progressive left, many of whom reside in this district. Together, this makes her a serious contender for the seat and therefore increases the possibility of another Latina being elected in the borough of Queens.

Further west, we come to the 25th Council District, the seat currently held by outgoing Council Member Danny Dromm, who is term-limited. This district, covering Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, has seen one of the largest increases in the Latino population in the entire borough, making it now a majority-Latino district. Of the Democratic electorate, an estimated 41% is Latino. The next closest group is Southeast Asians at 20% of the Democratic electorate. Four of the eight candidates running in the all-important Democratic primary are Latinos: Liliana Melo, Manuel Perez, Alfonso Quiroz, and William Salgado. Of the four, Melo and Quiroz have received over $140,000 in public matching money, significantly boosting their campaigns. This race is one to watch.

Another Council district with a rapidly increasing Latino community is Queens’ 26th, covering parts or all of Sunnyside, Woodside, Long Island City, Astoria, and Dutch Kills. Its current occupant, Jimmy Van Bremer, is term-limited and thus cannot seek re-election to the Council. White voters only outnumber Latinos by an estimated 1,125 Democratic voters. Considering the trend of continued growth among Latinos, it is likely that in the next few years this district will also become majority-Latino. Two of the 15 candidates are Latinos: Lorenzo Brea and Glennis Gomez. Both have received public matching money and are competitive, creating another opportunity to increase Latino representation in the borough.

The 30th Council District is the fourth Queens district presenting Latinos an opportunity to increase representation this year. Covering the neighborhoods of Glendale, Maspeth, Middle Village, Ridgewood, Woodhaven, and Woodside, this district is now majority-Latino. Latinos have a slight edge in the Democratic primary (by just an estimated 61 voters) over white voters in what has been a white-ethnic enclave for many decades. Juan Ardila is taking on incumbent Council Member Robert Holden, who is up for re-election after he lost the Democratic primary in a 2017 bid to unseat Elizabeth Crowley, then defeated her in the general election running on the Republican and other ballot lines.

Ardila has proven to be a solid fundraiser, and like Holden, he has received the maximum in public matching money. Endorsed by Donovan Richards (the current borough president), State Senator Ramos, the Working Families Party, and many progressive groups, elected officials, and labor unions, Ardila has a good chance of defeating one of the few incumbents in this election cycle, at least in the primary.

The last Queens Council district I am looking at in terms of Latino representation is the 32nd. Eric Ulrich, one of the few Republicans in the Council, is the current occupant and is term-limited from running again. Latinos are now the majority of the Democratic electorate, though not a majority of the overall vote. Bella Matias is the only Latina on the ballot and has received over $52,000 in public matching money. If she is able to organize and turn out enough Latino votes in a crowded race, she may surprise some observers, though whoever wins will still have to defeat the Republican nominee in the general election in a district that has more Democrats than Republicans but has elected Ulrich several times.

On primary day and as the votes are counted over the following weeks, my eyes will be focused on Queens. With its sizable and growing Latino presence, Queens may well send even more Latinos to City Hall. 

Eli Valentin is an adjunct lecturer at Union Theological Seminary, a frequent guest political analyst at Univision NY and author of the forthcoming, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Political Life. On Twitter @EliValentinNY.

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New York’s Chance to Take on the Crisis of Child Poverty

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Time to focus on children (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Children live in poverty at higher rates than any other age group in the United States. Children make up 22% of the United States population and 31% of those living in poverty. Racial inequities are deep and persistent: 71% of America’s children in poverty are children of color.

New York State entered the pandemic with more than 700,000 children living in poverty, 18% of all New York children. Black New York children live in poverty at twice the rate of white peers. Compared to the rest of the nation, New York children are more likely to live in poverty than children in 32 other states. More than 50% of Rochester’s children and just under 50% of Buffalo’s children live in poverty. In New York City, 22.2% of children live in poverty, with Bronx child poverty at 37.1%. By July 2020, the pandemic had pushed an additional 325,000 New York children into poverty or near poverty.

The impacts of child poverty can be severe and lasting and especially devastating for our youngest children who are most likely to live in poverty and most severely affected by it as their developing young brains and bodies are especially sensitive. Young children have the highest poverty rates of any age group in the country and poverty is a strong predictor of negative child outcomes. 

While poverty is difficult for anyone, the impact on children can be permanently damaging.  Children, especially those under the age of five, whose brains are just developing, need good nutrition, strong and stable parent/caregiver connections, and high-quality early learning experiences to grow and develop, but the odds are against them if they are poor.

This should concern all of us.

For our children experiencing poverty, every day New York fails to prioritize ending child poverty matters. The experience of poverty and trauma in childhood can have long-lasting impacts on development. The stress of poverty can alter the brain development of young children – causing permanent changes in the structure and functioning of the brain. As a result, many children who experience poverty face significant challenges – in the form of poor health, academic obstacles, lower earnings – for the rest of their lives.

This has a detrimental impact on children, and on the future viability of communities. Reactive interventions in the out-years through the provision of public benefits or interaction with the criminal justice system are far more costly than meeting the needs of disadvantaged children and families from the beginning. With the stakes so high, there should be no delay in tackling child poverty. 

The federal American Rescue Plan Act is expected to significantly reduce child poverty in New York, and across the nation, in the coming year. However, the plan’s enhanced Child Tax Credit leaves out children without a Social Security number and as a result leaves behind an estimated 72,000 of New York’s children. These same children and families were cut out of the first round of stimulus checks, and the current one, along with many other family supports. The future of the child tax credit enhancement is also unclear.

Without thoughtful, intentional, and additional investments to address child poverty, hundreds of thousands of children will continue to live in poverty. And the income and economic effects of the covid recession will linger for years. But New York’s children can’t put their development on hold. 

We know our fellow New Yorkers care about boosting families living in poverty. We know our legislative colleagues are pained to know their residents live in poverty. But child poverty is not going to go away without unified focus and effort.

We won’t get returns on investments we don’t make. As an investment in New York’s long-term future, we must aim to eliminate poverty and mitigate its effects. 

Our bill (S.2755/A.1160) will do just that. The Child Poverty Reduction Act -- which just passed the State Senate -- provides New York the tools needed to reduce child poverty. It makes a public commitment to cutting child poverty in half in ten years; requires an annual public report of the effects that any adjustment or reduction by the director of the budget will have on child poverty; establishes the Child Poverty Reduction Advisory Council to develop a plan to achieve this goal with attention to racial equity; requires regular reporting to hold government to account; and directs the Advisory Council to evaluate policies proven to cut child poverty.

Let’s pass this bill in the Assembly and take on child poverty like the crisis it is.

New York State Senator Jessica Ramos represents parts of Queens and Assemblymember Harry B. Bronson represents upstate areas including Rochester, Henrietta and Chili. On Twitter @JessicaRamos & @HarryBBronson.

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